Tips and Tricks

A staple around here on Baking and Mistaking is the "Tip of the Day," but most of these tips can be applicable to everyday baking - so here they are compiled for reference.
Product and Pan Substitutions
Ingredient and Tool Recommendations
General Baking Tips
      -Ingredient Prep
      -Cookie Baking
      -Cake and Cupcake Baking
      -Pie Baking
      -Frosting and Filling a Cake
      -Baking with Fruit
      -Random Tips



Product and Pan Substitutions:
  • Product Substitutions:
    • If you need sweetened coconut and can only find unsweetened - do not despair. Up the sugar content of the recipe as needed - estimate 1/2 cup for every 12 ounces of coconut. You can use sweetened instead of unsweetened by slightly reducing the amount of sugar in the recipe. 
    • If you're looking for a crunchy nut substitute try cereals like rice krispies or grape nuts. 
    • If you're looking to make a non-dairy recipe that calls for cream cheese, try the Tofutti alternative. 
    • Substituting applesauce in baked goods works best in oil based recipes, not those with butter. If you're trying it, substitute the applesauce for oil 1 to 1, and then add 2 tbsp oil in addition.  
    • Small amounts of liquid in recipes can often be substituted with little problem (be a little more cautious with milk) - so try switching things out for new flavor combinations - orange and lemon juice, whiskey, brandy, tea - you never know what you can create.
    • You can play around with the types of chocolate you use - unsweetened, bittersweet, semisweet or even milk chocolate.
    • If a recipe calls for preserves, experiment with different flavors - the possibilities are endless.
    • Recipes generally call for either baking soda or baking powder - but be careful, they're not the same. If you have soda, but need powder, use 1 part soda to 2 parts cream of tartar to replace. If you have powder but need soda, use twice as much, but omit the salt.
    • If you're using mini chocolate chips, you'll need less than if using regular sized ones. There's no exact science (and almost no such thing as too many chocolate chips) but I would average 3/4 cup of mini for every 1 cup regular. 
    • Don't have buttermilk on hand? For every cup of milk, add one tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar and let it sit for about ten minutes before adding to recipe. 
    • If you're running low (or completely out of) powdered sugar, you can make your own by running some granulated sugar through a coffee grinder or food processor.
  • Pan and tool substitutions:
    • A 9-inch round pan has the same area as an 8-inch square, so you can substitute them without any changes to temperature or baking time.
    • Most loaf pans are either 9x3 or 8x4, which can be used interchangeably. If you double a loaf pan recipe, you can use a standard bundt or tube pan, though baking times will likely be less.
    • If you don't have a cake board that is the size or shape you need, just cut it out from a large piece of cardboard and cover it with heavy duty foil. Just make sure your cardboard is strong enough to hold your cake and won't buckle.   

Ingredient and Tool Recommendations:
  • Ingredient Recommendations:
    • You can generally find two types of cocoa powder available: Natural and Dutch Process. Dutch process has an alkaline solution added to it, and is milder, and should be used with baking powder. Natural does not have anything added to it, and is a richer taste, and should be used in recipes with baking soda. The most common called for one is Dutch Process (and the only one I keep on hand).   
    • Real vanilla extract has a much better taste than the fake stuff, so invest wisely in the real stuff - your taste buds will approve. 
    • The quality of your chocolate (chips) can make all the difference in a recipe. Just as they say with wine, don't bake with chocolate you wouldn't want to eat. I recommend Trader Joe's semi-sweet chocolate chips for relatively inexpensive quality.
    • Make sure to purchase large, not small, medium or jumbo eggs for baking. Most recipes, unless otherwise specified, are calibrated for that size.
  •   Tool Recommendations:
    • A sharp, thin-bladed serrated knife like this one works best for cutting slices off a log, like in most standard icebox-cookie recipes.
    •  Though plastic spatulas are great for many things, you really need a sturdy metal spatula for cookies - both transferring them from your workspace to the cookie sheet, and then removing them after baking. Try this one for a start.
    • If you don't have a food processor, at least invest in a pastry cutter (I have this one) - to cut your butter (or cream cheese) into dry ingredients evenly and quickly.
    • When heating on the stove, always use a wooden spoon: they don't conduct heat, and you can leave them in the pot, reducing the need for a spoon rest.
    • I recommend you invest in an immersion blender, also known as a hand blender or a stick blender. They're relatively cheap, easy to clean, and allow you to use blending power in any bowl or container. And less dishes to wash!
    • Always use a non-stick saucepan when making sauces, syrups and toppings. And if your non-stick pan is scratched and worn, realize that it's likely lost much of it's 'non-stickness.'
   

General Baking Tips
  • Ingredient Prep
    • Always make sure to read through a recipe start to finish - ingredients and instructions - before beginning with your ingredients. You may miss a crucial step needed advance preparations, or realize you need an ingredient you're missing.
    • In recipes calling for apples, try using two or three different types for variety in the dish.
    •   If your jam or preserves are a little too thick to spread, microwave them for a few seconds until they loosen up, but don't overdo it.
    • Don't use old yeast! It only has a shelf life of 3 to 4 months.
    • While you can buy many different tools to separate eggs, I still think the best one out there is the shell itself. Just crack it open, and catch the yolk in one half, and pour it back and forth until fully separated. You might not get it the first time, but practice makes perfect.
    • Measure out oil first before ingredients like honey or peanut butter - which helps them not stick to the measuring cup. Or you can give the cup a quick spray with Pam.
    • Butter softens best sitting out for an hour at room temperature, but if you need to speed it up use the microwave, but make sure to put it on a lower setting or a "soften" setting or you'll end up with melted butter.  
    • Using room temperature eggs in your recipe will help them better incorporate into the rest of the ingredients.
    • Keep your brown sugar tightly sealed so that it doesn't turn hard. If it does, you can try and revive it by microwaving it next to a cup of water for two to three minutes.
    • Brown sugar is always measured as a "packed" cup - which means you press the sugar down into the cup with your fingers to make sure it's as full as possible.  
  • Cookie Baking
    • When making a chocolate and vanilla dough/batter, like these, always make the vanilla first so you dont' have to clean out the bowl before starting on the next dough. 
    • If you're rolling out dough on a counter, cover the surface first with lots of wax paper or saran wrap (you can tape it down to keep it in place) for an easier clean up.
    • If you want all your cookies to be uniform in size and shape, form them in the bowl of a tablespoon measurement - it'll give you a good guide to get your shape. 
    •  Most cookie doughs can be kept in the fridge, covered, for several days before baking, or frozen for several months. Then, when you have the time to bake, your dough is right there waiting!  
    • If you bake two trays of cookies in the oven at one time, they may not bake exactly the same, so when you check in, make sure to check the top and bottom racks for done-ness. Generally the top rack bakes quicker since heat rises.
    • Most cookies will bake up fine on a baking sheet lined with non-stick foil, which makes for easy clean up!
    • If any cookie dough proves difficult to roll out or work with, a quick stint in the freezer or fridge will likely make it more manageable. And keep your dough there in between batches as well.  
    • If you know your oven doesn't heat up evenly from front to back, don't be afraid to rotate your cakes or cookies mid-way through baking to brown evenly - but work quickly!
    • If you let your cookie sheets cool to room temperature between batches, you'll experience much more uniform cookies.
    • When making bar cookies, you may want to consider a real metal pan over foil so you can retain nice straight edges. 
  • Cake and Cupcake Baking
    • When greasing a bundt cake it is crucial to make sure that not only the bottom and sides are well greased, but the center tube as well.
    • When filling cupcake cases, use an ice cream scoop to get level results. 
    • When dividing batter in half for a filled cake, I always eyeball it, but err on the side of putting more in the bottom layer, since, like here, whatever you're placing in between layers has a tendency to sink.  
    • If you want to test a cake for doneness that's deeper than a toothpick, try using a piece of raw spaghetti instead. But don't let it break off!  
    • Think of baking times for cakes as a guideline. Whatever the recipe says, its important to keep an eye on your cake (but don't open the oven too many times!) looking for done-ness with your eyes, fingers and the toothpick test. Start looking ten minutes before the stated time, and adjust baking time accordingly.
    • To check if your cake or cupcakes are done, press gently on the dome. It should be firm, and spring back within a second or two.  
    • If a cake is topped with jam, it may appear to not be set even though the cake itself is - so be careful not to overbake. 
    • When removing a cake from a pan, often it's easier to use two wire racks, placing one upside down on the top of the cake, and flipping the whole thing over, eliminating any worry of dropping the cake, like I've done before.  
    • While nothing beats fresh, freezing cake can be a valuable tool if you have a lot or need to prepare in advance. But you're better off freezing unfilled and unfrosted cakes, and then assembling and decorating once they're thawed. But thaw on the counter or in the fridge, never in an oven or microwave.  
  • Frosting and Filling a Cake:
    • Place a dab of frosting in the center of the board before putting the first layer down, to help it stay in place. 
    • If you want your frosted cake to have a smooth outside look, use slightly wet fingers to smooth it down all over. Or opt for the natural look - either way it's delicious.
    • If a frosted cake gets cracked or broken, don't despair. Sandwich the pieces together with frosting before covering it, and nobody will know.
    • Before piping or decorating with icing, frosting or chocolate, test it out on a piece of parchment paper or a plate beforehand to gauge the flow of the material, and the pressure you need to get the right line.
    • When decorating a cake with words or letters always start from the middle and go outwards to make sure everything is properly centered on the cake.
    • Fillings and frostings will have very different consistencies at different temperatures. For most, room temperature will be ideal for spreading. Refrigerating will often make them much thicker and sometimes solid. When heated, many frostings will be pourable. Make sure yours is at the right temperature for your needs.  
    • Your cake must be completely cool before frosting or it will all melt off. If you're in a rush and don't have time to let it cool on the counter, stick it in the fridge or freezer for a short while. But make sure you don't freeze it solid if you're planning on eating it right after!
    • Store bought frosting can easily be dyed with food coloring to whatever shade you need. For black frosting start with chocolate, and stir in a few drops of black.
    • When frosting cupcakes without a piping bag, dollop some first in the middle and then use a flat edged knife to smooth it out in a circle motion.
    • Dress up almost any cookies and cakes with a decorative chocolate drizzle, or a simple glaze made out of powdered sugar, a liquid (milk, juice, drinks), and some vanilla or other essence.
    • Use a damp paper towel or cloth to clean off the edge of a plate before serving (or photographing). If its just for you - or family - you can always use a finger!  
  • Pie Baking
    • Keeping your pie dough cold is crucial - chill completely before rolling out, and work with the bottom and top separately, to keep them cool. You also want all the ingredients for the crust to be extra cold when using - like the shortening/butter and water.
    • Flour the rolling pin, counter and dough generously. Flip and turn the dough when rolling to make sure it won't stick. If it does, scrape it up with a knife of bench scraper and start over. 
    • If the dough rips when transferring it to the pie plate, you can always patch it up with some scraps. 
    • Scraps can also be used to add any decorative touches to the 
    • With fruit pies, the consistency and taste of the filling can vary widely with the fruit. Always try a piece of fruit before baking to see if it is too tart - you can add more sugar. If using very ripe fruit that is juicy, you may want to drain the fruit before putting in pie crust. Letting the fruit sit in sugar for a while will also help drain some liquid.
  • Baking With Fruit:
    • Most berries grow mold easily, so use fresh ones within a day or so, or freeze them. Also don't wash them until you're about to eat or use them - they're more likely to go moldy when wet.  
    • One large lemon will yield about 3 to 4 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 2 to 3 teaspoons of lemon zest.  
    • Fresh fruit usually works the best in baked goods, but frozen and thawed works when your berry of choice is out of season. 
Random Tips for Everyday:
  • If you're using your hands, don't forget to take your rings off first!
  • Make sure that your oven is fully preheated before putting anything in. Newer ovens will alert you when it's ready, or give it 10 to 15 minutes before baking.
  • If you drop a raw egg, liberally cover the mess with table salt, which will make the egg clump and it easier to clean up.
  • Don't close your cookbook just because your dish is in the oven - check for cooling instructions - should it be in the pan or out, and how long. Recipes cool faster on a wire rack so air can circulate underneath. 
  • When baking empty pie and tart shells, line the shell with parchment paper or foil, and fill with dried beans to act as weights. You can keep and reuse these beans for future recipes - this technique is referred to as baking "blind." Alternatively, you can freeze the dough in the dish before baking. 
  • If you're looking to halve a recipe that calls for an odd number of eggs, when you get to the "half" beat the egg a little and pour half the mixture in, so you get an equal amount of yolk and white.  
  • When you half, third, triple or eighth a recipe - it's important to know which ingredients need to be exact and which don't. A little less or more oats or chocolate chips won't be crucial, but your baking powder or soda should be exact.
  • For recipes that call for you to melt butter or chocolate or both over a double boiler, you can do it in the microwave - but only run it for 20 seconds each to prevent burning. 
  • "Tempering" chocolate is a method of melting chocolate that will ensure it is shiny and that it will not "bloom" later on - develop those white, chalky spots we've all seen. The process of tempering is long and complicated and not something I would ever put myself through. Getting the shiny coat is easy - stir a little vegetable oil in to the melted chocolate. Preventing blooming is also easy - eat within a few days.
  • Some decorative elements on pies and cakes look great but don't have staying power - like whipped cream, fresh fruit or even confectioner's sugar. These are things that should be added right before serving, and consider doing it to individual pieces instead of the whole.